By Conor Heffernan
Troops storm into the house and forcibly evicting those inside. Screams of terror emanate from the house, growing louder and louder with each moment. Soon the house will be set on fire. In the melee that ensues, troops single out a woman known for collaborating with the enemy. Held down at gunpoint, her head is shaved. In the distance, fighters from the other side look on as she wails.
This scene depicted comes from Ken Loach’s 2006 film on the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’. While fictional, it touched upon a seldom-discussed occurrence during this time, namely acts of intimidation and degradation targeted at Irish women. The years from 1919 to 1921 were a tumultuous period in Irish history. Atrocities were committed on both sides and subsequent generations have yet to fully examine them. Intimidation and head shaving are just one example of Ireland’s past that historians have yet to discuss adequately.
In this post, I will ask two questions: how prevalent was the shaving of women’s hair as a tool of intimidation and how has it been studied by Irish historians?
Intimidation has always been a key tool during warfare. Ireland was no different. Arson, kidnapping and fake executions were all employed alongside hijackings and murder. The goal was simple; inspire fear. Men were targets of executions and kidnappings. Women became the targets for head shaving, beatings and rape, with head shavings being the most common punishment. Both sides viewed the deliberate execution of women as a practice best avoided, given the natural abhorrence that would greet such punishment. Humiliations garnered through head shaving were seen as ‘humane’ punishments.
Head shaving was a deliberate violation of victims’ femininity. Whilst the cutting itself was painful, the aftermath could be worse as the shaved woman became a symbol of betrayal and a warning to others. Newspaper reports suggest that in most instances the attack took place at night, as was the case for Julia Goonan who was taken at midnight by her attackers, hung up by her hair and shaved. Occasionally shavings took place in fields, when, finally exhausted from fleeing her pursuers, women were run to ground. Spurred on by the cheers of their compatriots, the attackers shaved the women’s heads as punishment for their perceived indiscretions. Unlike later instances, such as those that occurred in France after WW2, head shavings in Ireland were normally performed away from the masses and those who could intervene.
Although ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ suggested only British troops engaged in such actions, there is evidence to suggest that both sides were perpetrators. Reports from the Irish Times detail numerous occasions when Irish rebels were the ones meting out this punishment. Eileen Barker was one such victim, having had her head shaved at gunpoint by members of the IRA. Her crime? Allowing British troops to stay in her hotel. Liaising with British troops was strictly forbidden as one woman in Tuam discovered. As her head was being shaved, members of the IRA told here they “were for Ireland free.”
Likewise, during the War of Independence, Black and Tans cropped Irish women’s hair suspected of collaborating with the IRA. Like Sinead from Loach’s film, women with IRA links were often the first port of call for British soldiers in their search for information. Concurrently, the IRA used head shaving to punish women having relations with British soldiers or helping the enemy such as Eileen Barker. Both sides clearly knew the damage head shavings caused to victims and it is remarkable to find reports of the IRA ‘avenging’ the head-shaving of ‘loyal’ Irish women. One such incident reported involved two soldiers being taken from their beds by Irish rebels and beaten for shaving Irish women.
It appears that Irish Catholic women bore the brunt of this punishment as Protestant women tended to be less likely to be punished by the IRA for their relations with British soldiers.
While it is impossible to estimate how many women suffered, newspaper reports from the Irish Times and local tribunes suggest that this form of punishment was dealt out with at least some form of regularity. Ken Loach’s film brought this reality to Irish screens but rather than open up a discourse on such forms of punishment, Loach’s depiction was soon forgotten. Why has Ireland neglected to examine this form of punishment?
Irish Times, 21 July 1920, page 5.
Studying the Past
A scan through some of the larger monographs on this period reveals the nature of Ireland’s amnesia regarding head shaving. Authors have tended either to completely omit discussion of the practice or to give it only a cursory mention in a throwaway sentence. This is in stark contrast to the histories of war conducted in Belgium, France and Germany, where the head shaving of women has sparked immense debates about the sexual, gender and power relations exhibited by this form of punishment.
Ireland’s contribution to this form of debate has been sparse, and relevant studies have only recently appeared. In 2010, Julia Eichenberg addressed this issue in her comparative study on paramilitary violence in Ireland and Poland after the First World War. Likewise, in 2011, Ann Matthews has discussed rape and head shaving, arguing that although not as prevalent as in other European wars, it did occur with regularity. Other studies are few and far between. Indeed, as Niall Whelehan noted in 2014, “violence against women is relatively under-explored” in Irish history.
Ireland’s historians are not the only ones guilty of forgetting, as Loach’s film is the only major artistic work to have dealt with this issue. The scene it contains lasted only a handful of minutes and its legacy has been non-existent. Despite a fascination with nationalist history, Irish historiography has remained silent on the issue despite the existence of both parliamentary and personal records detailing such atrocities. In 1920, Judge K.C. Doyle mocked Ms. Goonan as she attempted to bring her attackers to justice. It seems that Ireland’s historians have yet to rebuke Mr. Doyle.
Further Reading List
Eichenberg, Julia. ‘The Dark Side of Independence: Paramilitary Violence in Ireland and Poland after the First World War’, Contemporary European History 19.03, (2010) 231-248.
Matthews, Ann, Renegades: Irish Republican Women 1900-1922 (2011), Cork.
Whelehan, Niall, ‘The Irish Revolution, 1912–23’, in Alvin Jackson (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish History (Oxford, 2014), 621-639.
Photograph: Photocopy of reproduced image taken during the Irish War of Independence. Seán Hogan’s (NO. 2) Flying Column, 3rd Tipperary Brigade, IRA. T. (1920-21).
Conor is studying for an MPhil in Historical Studies at the University of Cambridge. His research interests include nationalism, physical culture, the body and health.